Kathakali Dance, Kathakali School

The image of a kathakali actor in a magnificent costume with extraordinary make-up and a huge gold crown has become Kerala's trademark. There are still many traditional performances, which take place on open ground outside a temple. It used to begin at 10pm and lasting until dawn, illuminated only by the flickers of a large brass nilavilakku oil lamp centre stage.

Virtually nothing about kathakali dance is naturalistic, because it represents the world of gods and demons. Both male and female roles are played by men.

Kathakali Performance

Standing at the back of the stage, two musicians play driving rhythms, one on a bronze gong, the other on heavy bell-metal cymbals; they also sing the dialogue. Actors appear and disappear from behind a handheld curtain and never utter a sound, save the odd strange cry.

The elaborate hand gestures, facial expressions and chreographed movements, as articulate and precise as any sign language, requires rigorous training. The learning can begin at the age of eight and last ten years in Kathakali school.

At least two more drummers stand left of the stage; one plays the upright chenda with slender curved sticks, the other the maddalam, horizontal barrel shaped hand drum. When a female character is "speaking", the chenda is replaced by the hourglass-shaped edakka, a "talking drum" on which melodies can be played. The drummers keep their eyes on the actors, whose every gesture is reinforced by their sound.

More About Kathakali

Kathakali literalyy means "story play".It bears the unmistakeable influences of koodiyattam and indigenous folk rituals. But in the seventeenth century Kathakali in Kerala become a distinct theatre form. The plays are based on three major sources: the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana.

Most of the stories are about god-heroes such as Rama and Krishna. While characters that give the most scope to the actors are red-and-black-faced katti ("knife") anti-heroes. These types, such as the king Ravana and Dhuryodhana, are dominated by lust, greed, envy and violence.

Understanding Kathakali

David Bolland's handy paperback Guide to Kathakali is widely available in Kerala. The book gives invaluable scene-by-scene summaries of the most popular plays and explains in simple language a lot more about Kathakali.

When attending a performance, arrive early before it gets dark, even though the first play will not start much before 10pm. Members of the audience are welcome to vist the dressing room before and during the performance, to watch the masks and make-up being applied. The colour and desing of these, which specialist artists take several hours to apply, signify the personality of each character.

Seven Principal Character Types

  1. Pacha ("green" and "pure") characters, painted bright green, are the noble heroes, including gods such as Rama and Krishna.Often the most popular with the audience, they have green faces to signify their noble birth, with upturned mousaches and white mushroom knobs on the tips of their noses.
  2. Katti ("knife") are evil and clever characters such as Ravana.
  3. Chokannathadi ("red beard") characters are power-drunk and vicious, and have black faces from the nostrils upward, with blood-red beards.
  4. Velupputhadi ("white beard") represents Hanuman, monkey son of the wind god and personal servant of Rama. He always wears a grey beard and furry coat, and has a black and red face and green nose.
  5. Karupputhadi ("balck beard") is a hunter or forest-dweller and carries a sword, bow and quiver. He has a coal-black face with a white flower on his nose.
  6. Kari ("black") character, the ogresses and witches of the drama, have balck faces, marked with white pattersn, and huge breasts.
  7. Minukku ("softly shaded") characters are women, Brahmin and sages. The women have pale yellow faces sprinkled with mica and the men wear orange dhotis.

Once the make-up is finished, the performers wear their costumes. They'll have elaborated wide skirts tied to the waist, towering headdresses and long silver talons fitted to the left hand.

Women, Brahmins and sages are the only characters with a different style of dress. The men wear orange, and the women wear saris and cover their heads. The Transformation is completed with a final prayer before the performance begins.

Visitors new to Kathakali may get bored during such long programmes. If you're at a village performance, you may not always find accommodation, so you can't leave during the night. Be prepared to sit on the ground for hours, and bring warm clothes.

Where You Can See a Performace

Kathakali in Kochi

Kochi is the only city in the state where you are guarnteed see live Kathakali. You may see it in its authentic setting, in temple festivals held during the winter. Otherwies at the shorter tourist-orientd shows that take place year-round.

Five venues in the city hole daily shows. Each show is preceded by an introductory talk at around 6.30pm. You can watch the dancers being made up if your arrive an hour or so beforehand. The keen photpgraphers shuld turn up well before the start to ensure a front-row seat. Tickets can be brought at the door.

Most visitors only attend one performance. But you'll gain a much better sense of what Kathakali is all about if you take in at least a couple.

The Venues in Kochi

  1. Dr Devan's Kathakali

    See India Foundation
    Kalathiparambil Cross Road
    Near Ernakulam Junction Railway Station
    Tel: 0484 2366471

    The oldest established tourist show in the city, introduced by the Dr Devan, who starts the show with a lengthy discourse on Indian philosophy and mythology. 6.45pm-8pm(make-up at 6pm)

  2. Kerala Folklore Theatre and Museum

    Tel: 0484 2665452

    The most atmospheric venue-an a/c theatre decorated with wonderful Kerala murals and traditional wooden archetecture.Try to combine a performace with tour of the museum downstairs.

  3. Kerala kathakali Centre
    Bernard Master Lane

    Near Santa Cruz Basllica
    Just off K B Jacob Road
    Fort Cochin Tel: 0484 2215827, 2217552

    Popular peroformace from 6-7.30pm (make-up from 5pm) in a dedicated a/c theatre by a company of graduates of the renowned Kerala Kalamandalam. You usually get to see three characters, and the music is live. In additon, they do Kalarippayattu demonstraitons(4-5pm), and live Carnatic music from 8.30pm.

  4. Rhythms Theatre (Greenix)

    Opposite Fort House
    Kalvathy road
    Fort Cochin
    Tel: 0484 2217000, 2217100 Mob: 9349372049, 9388371951

    The show combines excerpts from Kathakali plays with displays of Mohiniyattam dance, Kalarippayattu martial art and ,on Sundays, Theyyam, set against a combination of live and prerecorded music. Performaces aren't of the highest standard, but the evening is more likely to appeal to kids, as costumes and acts change in quick succession.

  5. Cochin Cultural Centre

    Daily Kathakali shows 6.30pm (make-up at 4.30pm). Award-winning company with theatres in both Fort Cochin and Ernakulam. They also host introductory courses.

    Manikath Road
    Tel: 0484 2356366,2357153

    Opposite RDO Office
    K B Jacob Road
    Fort Cochin
    Tel: 0484 2216911

Kathakali in Other Places

Margi Theatre

Near Fort
Tel: 0471 2478806

The Varkala Cultural Centre

Behind the Sunrise restaruant
North Clifftop
Tel: 0470 2608793

Kerala Kalamandalam

Tel: 04884 262418, 262526

P S V Natyasangham

"Arya Vaidya Sala"
Malappuram District
Tel: 0483 2743650, 2742213

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